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Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Human Rights Commission, United Nations

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Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, November 1949

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, November 1949. She was appointed UN ambassador by President Harry S Truman, and in her work there had significant impact in producing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum

On February 16, 1946, facing the incredible violations of human rights that victims of World War II suffered, the United Nations established a Human Rights Commission, with Eleanor Roosevelt as one of its members. Eleanor Roosevelt had been appointed a delegate to the United Nations by President Harry S Truman after the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt brought to the commission her long commitment to human dignity and compassion, her long experience in politics and lobbying, and her more recent concern for refugees after World War II. She was elected chair of the Commission by its members.

She worked on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, writing parts of its text, helping to keep the language direct and clear and focused on human dignity. She also spent many days lobbying American and international leaders, both arguing against opponents and trying to fire up the enthusiasm among those more friendly to the ideas. She described her approach to the project this way: "I drive hard and when I get home I will be tired! The men on the Commission will be also!"

On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution endorsing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In her speech before that Assembly, Eleanor Roosevelt said:

"We stand today at the threshold of a great event both in the life of the United Nations and in the life of mankind. This declaration may well become the international Magna Carta for all men everywhere. We hope its proclamation by the General Assembly will be an event comparable to the proclamation in 1789 [the French Declaration of the Rights of Citizens], the adoption of the Bill of Rights by the people of the US, and the adoption of comparable declarations at different times in other countries."

Eleanor Roosevelt considered her work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be her most important accomplishment.

More from Eleanor Roosevelt on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

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